Saturday, February 11, 2017

Composting with Chickens

Chicken compost structure
I love an elegant design. But what is an elegant design? Elegant is defined as pleasingly ingenious and simple. From an engineering standpoint, an elegant design is typically a design that achieves multiple functions through simplicity rather than complexity. This is easily accomplished with biological systems with just a little thought. Think about the process happening. Is there work you are doing that something else would happily do for you? Are there organisms that could be inserted into the process that would provide benefit without any real loss?

While I have tried to achieve this with my living systems since I was a teenager, one of the best examples I found was from Paul Stamets. He explained that if you compost wood chips, you can get compost, albeit slowly. If you grow mushrooms on the wood chips first, you get mushrooms. Then the spent mushroom blocks can be composted to still get compost, and faster. The addition of the right organism in the middle of the process makes all the difference.


Such is the way with chickens and compost. Chickens are omnivores. Their natural diet is a mixture of plants and bugs, with a healthy mixture of seeds thrown in. Commercial chicken feeds are mostly grain based. They give the chickens the basic nutritional needs, but don't really give them anything extra. Allowing the chickens to process compost on the other hand, is a natural fit that achieves multiple functions.

Chicken compost structure from the inside
For our purposes, we took an existing structure that was built for compost. It was constructed out of PVC pipe and wire and measured 11' by 14' and tall enough to stand comfortably in. We moved it into a corner that was out of the way and put an existing chicken coop inside. The coop gave the chickens a place to roost and lay and gave them protection from the rain and sun. Then we built four compost bins, one cubic yard each, using the same PVC pipe and wire techniques. The doors on the front of the bins rotate down. Then, since this is Phoenix and it is hot here, I installed a mister system over the compost bins to keep the compost wet and the chickens comfortable in the summer. 

To feed the chickens, I toss compost out into the open area. I also wander around and harvest a big bucket of weeds daily for the chickens to eat. Grain is given supplementally as needed and just to make sure they have enough food. The chickens pick through the weeds and kitchen scraps and eat what they want. The rest becomes litter under their feet and they manure on it. When the litter layer builds up enough, we scoop it up and toss it in one of the bins. Then we spread out a starter layer of straw or drier weeds and start the process over again. I hope to use wood chips soon as well. 

Once the compost is in the bins, it heats up to hot compost range within a few days. Once a week, we drop the front gate to the bin, and spread the compost out a little. The chickens dive right in and hunt for bugs. After a day or so, we scoop it up, water it a little, and mound it back up in a different bin. The process produces compost remarkably rapidly. We are actually having trouble keeping the temperature down enough on the compost bins. We don't want them so hot that they are essentially burning off the carbon we are trying to capture. 

Store bought eggs mixed with
eggs from our chickens
The best part is the change in the chickens. They have a habitat that is full of vertical relief to explore, attractive to bugs, and gives them lots of room to scratch around in. They have been much happier and engaged since moving into the compost bin. Plus, the change in the eggs has been remarkable. See, the color of the yolk is a good indicator of how healthy the chicken's diet is. Pale yellow yolks indicate a poor diet, usually of mostly grains. Darker yellow to orange means the diet is significantly improved. I hear that with attention to a great diet, the egg yolks can be almost made red. I haven't gotten there yet. 

Personally, I think that this could be done on a larger scale to take advantage of large scale food waste. Restaurants could collect food waste separately and they could be collected daily, or every few days at the least. Then the food scraps could be dumped into a chicken compost facility with several hundred chickens. They will eat what appeals to them. The remnants could be mixed with wood chips, also from municipal waste, and composted. The chickens could be brought back once a week or so to further pick through the composting material, keeping bugs down and helping it compost. At the end of the product, there is great compost produced, happy chickens, healthy eggs, and a reduction of the trash stream.


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